August 1, 2019
Few structures in Florida can boast a heritage as long and intriguing as the Amelia Island Lighthouse, where its light can still be seen 16 miles out at sea. In honor of National Lighthouse Day, here is a timeline of interesting “little known” facts about the oldest operational lighthouse in Florida and all the history she’s seen.
In 1820 while Florida was still under Spanish rule and Georgia was the southernmost state on the Atlantic coast, our lighthouse was built, stood, and shone on Cumberland Island, guiding vessels into the St. Mary’s River and along the Atlantic Coast. Meanwhile across the border on Amelia Island things were out of control with smugglers, drunkards, prostitutes, and pirates. In 1821, The United States decided to step in, take over and Spain officially ceded Florida to the United States.
Changes in the channel made it so the lighthouse light on Cumberland Island could no longer be seen when entering the St. Mary’s river. Thus, in 1838 for the grand total of $7,500 by Congress, the Cumberland Lighthouse was dismantled brick by brick, shipped across the river, and reconstructed on the northern end of Amelia Island where it still sits today. The light source for the tower consisted of a collection of fourteen oil lamps, backed by reflectors, which revolved to produce a flashing characteristic.
The Civil War caused the lighthouse to be taken out of service in 1861. Thankfully spared from any wartime damage, the tower quickly returned to service and the head keeper again climbed the sixty-nine granite steps each day, with oil buckets in hand, to tend the light. In 1903, the oil lamps were replaced with the third-order Fresnel lens that is still in place today.
Electricity finally reached the tower in the 1930’s allowing the station to be automated. The Coast Guard officially took over and became responsible for maintaining the lighthouse. Over the years, there were about twenty head keepers and in 1970, the final keeper retired ending an era. Throughout the years, old sailing ships gave way to modern freighters and fishing boats. All the while, the beacon kept shining and still guides seafarers into the channel toward the Fernandina Harbor.
Tours of the lighthouse are held the first and third Wednesdays of each month and can be arranged by calling the Atlantic Recreation Center at 904-310-3350. If you aren’t able to get to the lighthouse in person, you can explore the Amelia Island Lighthouse through our augmented reality app, right from your mobile device.
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